Discussion article: Neoliberal necropolitics and Indian migrant workers

May 18, 2020

by Yanis Iqbal

India has been witnessing a mass exodus of internal migrant workers due to an unplanned lockdown. The coronavirus crisis has compelled the Indian state to haphazardly effectuate a lockdown in order to properly practice social distancing. But it has unaccountably forgotten that social distancing is a privilege of the elite class if well-thought-out arrangements are not made. Indian citizens have to painfully witness the horrendous sight of pulverized migrant workers trying helplessly to return home. Many have already died in their perilous journey, which in most cases is being undertaken on foot. One can see bus stations such as Anand Vihar which are chock-a-block with poor women, holding their children in their arms. The surreal spectacle of legions of migrant workers standing at the bus terminus, sleeping under bridges and trying to escape the wrath of police officers shows how rapidly their everyday living has become abnormally intense. Apart from the non-existence of any substantial programmes for assisting the migrants, the Indian state is deliberately mutilating their dignity. The spraying of disinfectant on workers in the state of Uttar Pradesh substantiates the government’s attempt to invisibilise their dignity and also decrease the immanent worth of workers’ bodies.

This mass exodus can be interpreted as a conspicuous manifestation of what can be called “neoliberal necropolitics,” which has become an essential element of neoliberal capitalism. By contextualizing the exodus of Indian migrant workers in the global neoliberal necropolitics, an integrated framework can be provided for the explanation of this phenomenon. Neoliberal necropolitics has its conceptual roots in the emergence of neoliberalism and can only be understood as a constituent element of neoliberalism, whose origin has to be briefly sketched.

According to Niels Springveld, the coherent articulation of neoliberalism first occurred in the 1930s. The establishment of the Walter Lippmann Colloquium in 1938 and the setting up of the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) by Friedrich Hayek in 1947 signified that the nucleus of neoliberalism was expanding and maturing. These think tanks worked indefatigably to propagate the tenets of neoliberalism and then tried to operationalize them through governmental mechanisms and concerted empirical actions. The major spurt in neoliberalism occurred in the 1970s when Keynesianism got embroiled in an economic emergency.

Due to the slowdown during the economic regime of Keynesianism in the 1970s, Western governments decided to unfetter themselves from the welfare state. The culmination of this decision to rescind Keynesian economics was the Volcker Shock of 1979. The Volcker Shock astronomically increased the fed funds rate to put an end to double-digit inflation. A natural corollary of the Volcker Shock was an exponential enlargement of unemployment. In the 1980-82 recession induced by the Volcker Shock, the national unemployment rate surpassed 10%. This increase in unemployment was meant to fracture the labor market and create a labor-saturated market, which would help in severely curtailing the wages and, concomitantly, increasing the rate of profit for the bourgeoisie. All this is self-evident from the following statistical information: In 1952-1971, the rate of profit was 7.8%. Later, it plummeted to 6.4% in the 1970s. But between 1995 and 2005, the rate of profit rose to 8.3%. Moreover, Tayyab Mahmud has shown that the “share of total income received by the top 1% of the income bracket rose from 9% in 1980 to 23% in 2007.”

It is clear that neoliberalism’s commercialistic objective of maintaining a good rate of profit overrides all other considerations. A sustained rise in the rate of profit ensures that the resultant surplus value is enormous. The particular technique employed to perpetuate a highly unjust rate of profit involves the constant reduction of unit labor costs. This profit-oriented strategy is evidenced by the Global Wage Report 2018/19 which states that global wage growth declined to 1.8% in 2017 from 2.4% in 2016. Since the financial economic crisis of 2008, this is the lowest growth rate ever witnessed.

What all this produces is extreme precariousness and an ever-expanding reserve army of labor. The unstable employment of people in the informal economy and rising rates of unemployment are symptomatic of the inherent tendency of capitalism to generate unemployment and increase the worker’s vulnerability by constructing a large reserve army of labor. According to Karl Marx, the reserve army of labor is further divided into five categories: floating reserve, latent reserve, stagnant pool, paupers and lumpenproletariat. The first three categories are relevant for understanding the crisis generated by neoliberal necropolitics.

The stagnant pool consists of workers employed in extremely volatile environments, always facing insecurity. An example is the informal economy. An ILO report shows that 2 billion people work in the informal economy, which translates roughly to 60% of the world’s employed population. African nations stand as the prime example of the bludgeoning informalization of the economy with 85% of employment being informal.

The floating reserve consists of workers who were formerly employed. They are primarily terminated due to mechanization, which gives rise to structural unemployment. Marie Christine Duggan added that the floating reserve also consists of “men who have reached ‘maturity,’ and whom capitalism wishes to replace with younger workers.” Marx originally defined the latent reserve as the group of people who migrated to industrial centers to leave their traditional occupation of subsistence agriculture. But in contemporary times, it more generally refers to migrant and immigrant workers who join the stagnant pool.

The theoretical and empirical elaboration of the stagnant pool, latent reserve and floating reserve paints an extremely grim picture of the international labor market. Neoliberalism has reached an age where it is foisting economic uncertainties on the contractual, contingent and casual workers. This constitutes what can be called “neoliberal necropolitics.” Neoliberal capitalism always leads to necropolitics and this is done through crude institutional mechanisms such as accumulation by dispossession that reduce humans to disposable and denigrated bodies. It uses the contorted logics of profit and capital to subjugate life to the power of death.

Neoliberal necropolitics necessitates the extensive and exclusive control over the life and death of the working class. This entails the construction of “death-worlds” where “death-in-life” exists in the subjectivities of the affected individuals. Under neoliberal necropolitics, workers live in a constant state of siege, where “slow violence” produces “death-in-life.” Necropolitics is the logical extension of biopolitics, developed by Michel Foucault, and it theoretically augments biopolitics. Achille Mbembe developed the conceptual apparatus of necropolitics to emphasize the primacy of death in an atmosphere of militarized global capitalism. It extends biopolitics by postulating that the regulation and disciplinarization of the body is not the sole telos in the contemporary world. The efficient organization and actualization of death is also the primary objective of hegemonic violence in the current scenario.

Now, if we contextualize the exodus of Indian migrant workers in the global scenario of a labor market chained to the invasive power of neoliberal necropolitics, we get a rational and systematic picture, clearly defining the effects of neoliberalism on Indian migrant workers along with the inhumane aspects of neoliberal necropolitics. In India, it is estimated that more than 120 million people migrate from rural areas to industrial-urban areas for economic purposes. They, therefore, form the latent reserve which in India consists of migrants joining the stagnant pool. The people who are involved in these labor migrations are “surplus low-skilled individuals” and get assimilated into the informal sector. According to the economic survey of 2018-19, roughly 93% of the total workforce in India is informal but this datum has still not been established as reliable. Some say that not even the government knows the humongous size of this informal economy. This implicitly shows the extent to which neoliberalism has succeeded in flexibilizing the labor market, which actually means the entrenchment and densification of pervasive precarity.

Indian migrant workers earn approximately rupees 200-400 a day [less than $6], which is much below the minimum wage. Moreover, they live without a social safety net, continuously facing dislocation. Now, the whole global community can see their “shared bodily vulnerability.” Judith Butler used this term to describe a situation of precarity. Such circumstances of precarity can be observed not only in the exodus of Indian migrant workers, but also on a global level. Post-Keynesian neoliberal restructuring of the global economy has produced a global reserve of immigrant labor. For example, in the US, 17.1% of the total workforce is made up of immigrants. According to the ILO, there are approximately 244 million migrants, 3.3% of the global population. The immigrant labor pool suffers from hyper-precarity because immigrant laborers are victims of accumulated discrimination or intersectional discrimination. In India, inter-state migration is based upon caste: 16% of Indian inter-state migrants are members of Scheduled Castes and 8% belong to the Scheduled Tribes and the sum of these two is equivalent to their percentage of the total population.

Indian migrant workers are soon going to face even more unprecedented levels of hostility in a post-pandemic economic revival. It is estimated that 195 million jobs could be lost globally due to the coronavirus. India is certainly not insulated from these global headwinds and it is predicted that 400 million workers in the informal economy would face greater immiseration. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, the rate of unemployment in the last week of March was 23% and the employment rate was a miserly 30%. After the specter of coronavirus has gone, we can definitely expect the Indian state to pursue an unsustainable economic policy, which would be identical to the one followed since the 1990s. The neoliberal tool of Liberalization, Privatization, and Globalization would again be utilized cruelly to enrich the elitist 1% of India who currently own 73% of the country’s wealth. There is some modicum of credibility in this hypothesis because the revival measures for ending a recession in India, have invariably favored corporations rather than the common masses. Prabhat Patnaik has shown that the whole world is experiencing an income distribution shift, where wages will be further reduced. The cut in corporate tax rates which India had done in 2019 underscores this postulate that a recovery from recession would ultimately favor the privileged few.


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One thought on “Discussion article: Neoliberal necropolitics and Indian migrant workers

  1. “It is clear that neoliberalism’s commercialistic objective of maintaining a good rate of profit overrides all other considerations. A sustained rise in the rate of profit ensures that the resultant surplus value is enormous.”

    I did not know India, like the U.S., also cut corporate tax rates in 2019— transparently, this is a tool for shoring up a falling rate of profit. Iqbal makes clear that a new society would consider other objectives (and not profit) when coming to decisions about how to self-develop.

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